A Brief Analysis of the Natural Imagery in Shelley’s Political Poetry

0348937, M.A. student

Lit. 3B, essay 1

16 November 2003-11-3

The passion for nature and being close to nature seem to be the common features of all Romanticist poets, with William Wordsworth as the most outstanding representative. Unexceptionally, Percy Bysshe Shelley was also fond of using natural imagery to express his understanding and attitude towards life and society. However, Shelley’s description of nature is always pervaded by a wild, astounding, even destructive force, which can be best reflected in his well-known Ode to the West Wind.

The poem appears to be an ode to an overwhelming power that eliminates all of the dying lives and brings hope for the new beginning, a “Destroyer and Preserver”[1]. Unlike Wordsworth’s “quiet sky”, Shelley’s devotes his attention to the withering strength of the natural force. Opposite to Colridge’s mysterious “measureless caverns” and “lifeless ocean”, Shelley’s belief in the “impetuous” spirit is strikingly firm. Traditionally, autumn was generally labeled as the season of harvest and tranquility. But what appeals to Shelley is the destructive and revivifying spirit in late autumn.

In Shelley’s poetry, natural imagery is frequently used to illustrate the law that not only dominates the Nature, but also dictates the human society. The natural imagery in his poems is apparently endowed with a political significance. The sweeping wild wind symbolizes the revolutionary force, while the “leaves dead” represent the waning powers as well as the thoughts out-of-date. The poem was written in 1819, just after the downfall of Napoleon’s empire, and the various European kingdoms were busy restoring their dethroned monarchs. The colors of the perished leaves naturally reminds his contemporary readers of the map of Europe, and the colors Shelley chooses ─ “Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red”(l.l.4) ─ clearly show his attitude towards the weak power groups who are seeking for temporary ease. As Shelley sees it, the revolutionary force is the “Dirge of the dying year”(Ode to the West Wind, l.l.23-24), and it will definitely take the place of the old social system. That is why Shelley is considered the Romanticism poet with the greatest revolutionary spirit.

Accompanied with the title “revolutionary” which he deserved well, Shelley is also named an “atheist”, which is not necessarily proper. In his “A Defence of Poetry”, Shelley defined poem as “the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth”(Norton Anthology, p.783). More than that, he proceeds to explore the essence of “the highest good”(Norton Anthology, p.786). It is hard to imagine a sheer atheist should devote himself into the pursuit of “sublime” as Shelley did. Shelley was by no means an atheist who did not believe the existence of any spirits superior to the temporal life.

From Shelley’s tendency to use natural images, the readers can easily find that he is trying to prove the universality of the order of nature. In the third stanza of Ode to the West Wind, he describes an amazing scene under the Atlantic Ocean:

… while far below

The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear

The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

Thy voice, and suddenly grow grey with fear,

And tremble and despoil themselves…(l.l.38-40)

Under these lines, Shelley adds a note that says, “The vegetation at the bottom of the sea… sympathizes with that of the land in the change of seasons.”(Norton Anthology, p697) Here, Shelley is actually emphasizing the catholicity of the law of nature. Now that the succession of seasons applies to the benthal world, it must also apply to all natural creatures and political powers. After the peak season, everything will inevitably step into decline and give way to the new generation. In his Ozymandias, the same theme is mentioned:

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains, Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.(l.l.9-14)

Through the depiction of the ancient statue, Shelley explains that, everything is doomed to wane and fall into oblivion, no matter how powerful it once was. In the world of nature, the alternation of the old and new is achieved through the interference of the wild west wind; while in human society, violent revolution certainly